Tim Krohn

Over the years I've thought of how I might die.

Launching off the hairpin turns going up Pike's Peak. Cut down in a hail of bullets as I save the last of the young children from a maniac. Taken out while felling a tree. Or maybe peacefully in my sleep.

Until this week, I never thought I might die in the women's bathroom in a Holiday gas station.

My wife and I were driving to St. Paul on I-35E Tuesday night to go to the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists banquet. The rain was coming down heavy as we neared the Cities and MPR was warning of a dangerous thunder storm moving west to east across the southern metro. The hail started, the winds intensified and the interstate was hard to see. At the next exit, in Lakeville, we got off the highway and pulled up to the Holiday station, getting drenched and pelted with ice as we ran inside.

Vehicles were already jammed under the canopy over the gas pumps and a crowd was gathering inside.

We and others milled around and stood looking out the big bank of windows facing to the west — surely the safest place to be when an increasingly menacing storm is headed your way.

One of the store clerks ran out in the blistering rain, peppered with small hail and returned a short time later. She had opened the car wash and driven her car inside. "I just got a new car, it ain't getting hailed on. Don't think anyone will be using the car wash anyway," she said.

"A tornado's headed for us," a guy bellowed.

Several of us crowded into a hallway by the bathrooms in the back of the store with visions of glass shrapnel, mixed with Little Debbies, pop cans and energy bars rocketing through to the back of the store when the twister hit.

I looked at the guy with two girls and a son, 2, 4 and 6, and a pregnant wife, and we pushed the women's bathroom door open and filed inside, along with others.

tornado

A little girl kept us entertained as we hunkered down in the women's bathroom at the Holiday station, waiting to see if a twister was going to hit. Photo by Tim Krohn

The guy who'd yelled "tornado coming" was not the essence of calm as he sat in one of the women's stalls. He was on his phone to his wife as she listened to weather warnings at home. "Where's it at. What should we do?" he shouted to her.

What should we do? We're in the cinder-block bathroom at a gas station, the safest place we could be at the moment. I considered telling him he should rush outside and keep us posted by phone on how things were looking, but I resisted.

Kudos to the Lakeville Holiday crew, by the way. The women's bathroom was very clean.

While Panic Man was jabbering nonstop on the phone, the family of five, soon to be six, was sitting on the floor of the largest stall with the 6-year-old girl joyfully prattling on about how her soon-to-be-sibling kicks and "splashes around in the water" inside mom. She shared a number of other family secrets and regaled us with her life stories. She was oblivious to what might be coming outside, even as her dad told her that if something happened, she and the others would have to lie flat while he laid on top of them.

A woman walked in, looked around and said, "Anybody mind if I go to the bathroom?"

Have at it, we said, as she went in the stall, then came out and sat on the floor.

Unexpected events create an instant communal bonding. People you'd pass shopping in a convenience store without a thought are suddenly kin in a mini drama playing out at an unexpected spot.

Most people, I think, would like to see a powerful twister, from just a safe enough distance to feel the power without worrying about dying or having their home destroyed.

My fascination with that idea ended in 1998 with the tornadoes that tore across the countryside and hit St. Peter. I was working that weekend and headed to the west on Highway 68 as the scanner traffic said the twister was headed from Comfrey to the east. I found the twister near Courtland as it swept down the bluffs in front of me, dumping heavy rain, ripping up trees and pushing my car sideways across the highway before crossing the river.

OK, check that off my list.

Running into a tornado unexpectedly is different than waiting as the minutes tick by to see if your gas station might be the unlikely ground zero.

Everyone was watching the live radar on their phones. The technology is nice, letting you see when storms are coming and which direction they're moving. But I don't know if watching a dark-red swirling circle move closer and closer to where you're hunkered down makes things any better.

Finally, the ominous red blob on radar moved just past the dot showing our location with a welcoming yellow band behind it, signifying lighter rain. A few of us wandered back into the store and looked out the door, the wind and rain were giving way slightly. Back in the bathroom Panic Man was having none of it. "Tornadoes usually come in the yellow part," he told us.

The rest of us left him in the bathroom and began heading to our vehicles to move on.

Tim Krohn can be contacted at tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com or 344-6383.

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